‘Gypsy’ – Savoy Theatre


While it seems as if there’s a new Broadway revival of Gypsy every five minutes, London has not seen a production of the legendary musical since the original West End production closed in 1974. The musical, which tells the story of Rose Hovick and her two daughters, who would go on to become Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc, has been an instant classic since its 1959 Broadway premiere and contains one of the all-time great musical theatre leading roles. When I learned that Imelda Staunton would be headlining the first London revival in over 40 years, I decided to book my flight.

This new West End production is an import from the Chichester Theatre Festival, where Staunton and director Jonathan Kent previously collaborated on a successful Olivier-winning production of Sweeney Todd. The two also worked together on the UK premiere of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People. The critical response for Gypsy has eclipsed these two productions, garnering the sort of reviews that press agents can only dream about. Such notices can inflate my own expectations and lead to disappointment. Well, if anything, my expectations were exceeded. Imelda Staunton is giving a career-defining performance as Rose. Other Roses I’ve seen have given star turns (and were excellent), but Imelda just acts it. Her performance is epic in size, but unfailingly grounded. The cumulative result is one of the most searing star turns I’ve ever witnessed, and ranks among the top five performances I’ve ever seen in my theatergoing life.

The legendary cry “Sing out, Louise!” is heard from the back of the Savoy Theatre, and Staunton’s Rose, a diminutive spitfire, emerges from the shadows as though shot from a cannon. From these opening moments onward, there lurks a darkness in her, something a lot like rage, that sometimes rears its head at moments both expected and unexpected. These flashes sow the seeds for the inevitability of both “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” (harrowing) and “Rose’s Turn” (utterly devastating). But Imelda’s Rose is also charming, playful, resourceful, alert and unrelentingly maternal. Her singing voice is also up to the challenge, nuanced and warm on the ballads, but with the ability to fill the theater with a powerful, gritty belt when necessary.

In the lead-up to “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” as favored daughter June elopes and the vaudeville act falls apart, Rose’s new plan to focus on Louise (out of spite, out of desperation) was met with some uncomfortable giggling by the audience, who seemed incredulous that this woman was even remotely serious. This nervous laughter turned to silent sheer terror within seconds as Rose beat June’s letter as though scolding a child, and again moments later as Rose grabbed Louise by the nape of her neck and forced her to bow on the line “Blow a kiss, take a bow…”

Her “Turn” was in another realm entirely. During the mock-strip portion, she alternated between mocking Dainty June and imitating Louise’s gestures from the “The Strip,” caustic, withering and crazed. In a performance filled with bold risks, Imelda’s greatest was a pregnant pause before the line “Momma’s gotta let go.” The audience sat compelled in pin-drop silence as Rose worked through her maelstrom of emotions. Every second was earned and never gratuitous, and it haunted me for hours afterward.

That Ms. Staunton is so tremendous is a wonder give than the production is using the detrimental revisions made for the 2008 Broadway revival. These changes made by librettist Arthur Laurents to accommodate Patti LuPone strip away both comedy and vulnerability, and make Rose more one-dimensional. (The brilliant Styne-Sondheim score remains untouched). It’s a testament to Staunton’s triumph that she manages to bring humor and considerable pathos in spite of these limiting alterations. For the record, a more traditional ending is restored and is staged in such a way that I was moved to tears.

Lara Pulver is a good Louise. If it’s a bit of stretch to see her playing a child, her performance becomes stronger as her character ages. She is at her best after she’s transitioned from awkward Louise to elegant Gypsy Rose Lee. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the final scene played better. Blessed with an exquisite voice, Pulver also adds some delicious flourishes to the end of “The Strip.” She has one especially thrilling moment: gawkish Louise clumsily drops her glove during the opening of “The Strip” and bends over to pick it up. A cat-call is heard from the balcony. She looks up and smiles. She’s suddenly aware of her own beauty and the impact of her own sexuality on an audience. Gypsy Rose Lee is born.

Peter Davison is a warm, ingratiating Herbie, tall and lovable, with a calming presence. There have been some complaints by West End critics about his singing, and I find it amusing that we live in a time where we expect Herbie to be a good singer. Dan Burton, who is the West End equivalent to Tony Yazbeck, is a sensational Tulsa, with eye-popping technique in all three departments and a superb American accent, to boot. The three strippers are a knockout comic trio, especially Louise Gold’s Amazonian Mazeppa, complete with deadpan Lady Baritone.

Kent’s staging doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It’s a traditional production in virtually every respect, but Gypsy is a tried-and-true classic and doesn’t need much tinkering. His great achievement here is in the work he has done with the actors, particularly in cultivating the central mother-daughter dynamics. Some of the original dances remain, while Stephen Mear has choreographed the rest in the spirit of Jerome Robbins (the most notable: a new, more elaborate “All I Need Is the Girl” for Burton). There is a somewhat reduced orchestration (no strings), which isn’t ideal, but doesn’t detract from the overall experience.

Imelda is worth the price of admission. I would go so far as to say she’s also worth the price of the air fare and accommodation. Beg, borrow or steal; whatever you have to do to get to the Savoy Theatre before November 28 (when this extended limited engagement is set to close). This is one for the history books and you do not want to miss it.

Also: there’s a new 2015 London Cast Recording. It sounds fantastic, and while it won’t supplant other recordings in the canon (namely the superlative original Broadway cast recording starring Ethel Merman), it offers a wonderful document for those of us who have seen the production.

‘Robert and Elizabeth’ – An Appreciation


I have a soft spot for depictions of romance between historical figures. There is usually a greater antagonizing force that heightens their intimacy significantly and also captures me on an intellectual level. These couples tend to not only share physical attraction, but they also respect and admire each other’s intelligence, wit, and talent. I doubt I would like 1776 as much were it not for the scenes between John and Abigail Adams, which anchor a great musical with humanity. Another show that comes to mind is the lovely British musical Robert and Elizabeth, which tells the story of how famed poets Elizabeth Moulton Barrett and Robert Browning came to be married.

Elizabeth Moulton-Barrett lived in seclusion in her sick room at her father’s London home with her eight siblings, her maid Wilson, and her dog Flush. The exact nature of what was wrong with her remains something of a mystery, but she had a life-long history of poor health, which has also been linked to the accidental drowning of her beloved older brother. She was prone to illness, weak, and often unable to sit up or stand.

Her father, Edward Moulton-Barrett was a manipulative tyrant who ruled his nine children with a puritanical fervor, forbidding any of them from getting married or even having contact with potential suitors with the threat of disinheritance. Elizabeth, the eldest and father’s favorite, was gaining notoriety as a poet. Poet-playwright Robert Browning, impressed by her writing, began a written correspondence with her.

Not wanting to disobey her father, Elizabeth tried to dissuade Browning from seeing her. However, Browning’s persistence paid off; he was granted permission to call and she was won over by his charm and sincerity. During their courtship, Elizabeth also showed improvement in her health. In direct defiance of her father, Robert and Elizabeth eloped and moved to Italy, where they remained happily married until Elizabeth’s death. Her father stayed true to his word and they remained permanently estranged.

Playwright Rudolph Besier turned their story into The Barretts of Wimpole Street, which opened in London in 1930 and became an instant hit. Katharine Cornell played Elizabeth in the original Broadway production, and the role became one of her signatures, with numerous tours, two Broadway revivals, and a 1956 telecast. MGM released a starry film version with Norma Shearer, Fredric March and Charles Laughton in 1934, and later a remake in 1957.

Robert and Elizabeth, as the musical adaptation would eventually be called, had an unusual gestation. American lawyer/songwriter (yes) Fred G. Moritt wrote an adaptation called The Third Kiss. Unable to drum up interest with Broadway producers, he sought other venues. A film company was interested, but only if the product was tested onstage first. British producer Martin Landau was brought in, and while I haven’t yet been able to ascertain how it happened, Landau opted to create a brand new musical entirely. Ronald Millar wrote the book and lyrics, while Ron Grainer (famous for the Dr. Who theme) wrote the music. Moritt was given the credit “from an original idea by.”

Millar’s book effectively adapts Besier’s play, and his lyrics are quite good if occasionally stilted (I tend to make allowances for specific period pieces). He includes many clever references to their poetry, most notably the haunting song “Escape Me Never,” which is built on Browning’s poem “Life in a Love.” But he also gives the many characters very distinct characterization in their songs. Grainer’s music is lush and soaring; unashamedly romantic, but never obvious or cheap. His gift for melody is enterprising and occasionally surprising, particularly in the more upbeat numbers for the secondary characters. The singing requirements are considerable: legit voices, arias, duets, trios, includes sextet, septet, octet (the jaunty “The Family Moulton Barrett”), and even a nonet (the wistful “The Girls That Boys Dream About”), as well as a couple of full company numbers. 

Keith Michell, who had achieved great success in the original London and Broadway companies of Irma La Douce played the dashing Browning. Coloratura soprano June Bronhill, who had great success in bel canto opera, the original Australian company of The Sound of Music, and famously The Merry Widow, was Elizabeth. John Clements played Edward Moulton-Barrett. The production opened on October 20, 1964 at the Lyric Theatre. While old-fashioned in its style and sensibility, Robert and Elizabeth clicked with audiences and proved a major success for Bronhill. An original London cast album was recorded by HMV. The show ran 948 performances, closing on February 4, 1967, though it failed to break even due to its high running costs.

There were plans to bring the show, with Bronhill and Michell reprising their roles, to New York, but litigation halted that. The most commonly mentioned reason is a rights issues with the estate of playwright Besier. However, there was also litigation by Moritt, who was interested in protecting his original un-produced property (which at this point, no one wanted). Moritt’s suit wasn’t settled until 1969. Instead, Bronhill took the show to her native Australia in 1966 for a seven month run opposite Denis Quilley. Ultimately, neither Robert and Elizabeth nor Bronhill ever came to Broadway.

Singing-wise, the role of Elizabeth has a higher placement than most musical theatre soprano roles, with lots of money notes above the staff. Her want song, “The World Outside,” finishes on a high A, and each consecutive solo goes higher and higher. The second act opens with Elizabeth’s “Soliloquy,” an operatic aria comprised of major motifs from the want song and the major love duet “I Know Now,” providing the dynamic shift in Elizabeth’s arc (as well as a breathtaking high C). Her eleven o’clock moment is a brief, but show-stopping defiance of her father called “Woman and Man,” which ends on a shock-tactic D above C (which some think is higher than it actually is because the note comes as a total surprise).

Bronhill sings the material with taste, elegance, and a warm intensity; her technique is impeccable and her diction is flawless (you can make out precisely what she’s singing on a fast arpeggiated chord to high B in “Woman and Man”); one of the greatest soprano performances in cast album history. I can find no evidence that Bronhill had a matinee alternate, meaning she sang the hell out of this role 8 times a week for over a year and a half.

Productions of the show have been few and far between. Steve Arlen starred in a Chicago production at the Forum Theatre in 1974. There was a production starring Sally Ann Howes and Jeremy Brett that played Guildford, UK and Toronto, Canada in 1976-77. This was rumored to be a pre-Broadway tour, but nothing more ever came of it. In fact, the closest the musical has come to Broadway was a 1982 production at the Paper Mill Playhouse, which received mixed reviews. In 1987, the musical was revived as part of the Chichester Festival, resulting in a second cast album. This second recording is more complete than the original, containing music that isn’t even in the vocal score or libretto, but the singing – especially Gaynor Miles’ Elizabeth – is lacking.

I would love to see Robert and Elizabeth on stage, but there are several factors that work against my wish fulfillment. The cast is immense: Robert, Elizabeth, her father, her eight siblings, a maid, a cousin, a secondary love interest, and a cocker spaniel, to boot. All totaled, the show requires a cast of at least 40. Plus, there are opulent Victorian set and costume requirements. Also, the musical was seen as old-fashioned in 1964; it would probably be seen as a relic by most of today’s theatergoers. In the meanwhile, I’ll continue to cherish the gorgeous original London cast recording.

Finally, here is “I Know Know” performed by Michell and Bronhill on his 1971 BBC special Presenting Keith Mitchell:


‘Top Hat’ – Aldwych Theatre

Top Hat

The idea of a Tuesday matinee is a such a novelty to me, having grown up on the Broadway regimen of Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm. But in London, there are matinee options for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. As I had already had Merrily We Roll Along scheduled for that evening, I decided to make one last trip to the TKTS booth in Leicester Square. There were several options, but I went with the new stage adaptation of Top Hat because I so enjoyed Gavin Lee’s performance as Bert in Mary Poppins. Arriving at the Aldwych Theatre a couple hours later, I noticed that the understudy board was up: Lee was out and understudy Alan Burkitt was on. I’m not one to exchange tickets (and frankly I didn’t know if I could), so I plowed on ahead.

With gorgeous costumes, lushly orchestrated songs of Irvin Berlin and Bill Deamer’s dazzling choreography, Top Hat is a feast for the eyes and ears. The trouble with this adaptation of the 1935 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers classic is its leaden libretto, slavishly adapted from the RKO screenplay. In fact the libretto credit reads “Based on RKO’s motion picture/Adapted for the stage by” in the programme. In between the dazzling musical numbers are hokey scenes which stretch a silly, paper-thin plot about mistaken identity far past its sell-by date. The jokes are hoary, with many of them landing with a thud, especially in the first act. The second act improves considerably as the farcical machinations go into overdrive, and a new character is introduced to liven up the proceedings. This plot and gags are part of the charm of the ’35 classic, but onstage they become overlong excuses to set up glorious numbers, and it is just not enough to justify a 2 hour, 40 minute musical.

Burkitt and Kristen Beth Williams are both exceptionally talented and did admirable work, but neither were ideal for their parts. They were both given the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of Astaire and Rogers, and neither could shake the ghost of his or her predecessor. (Though to be fair, I’m not sure I could have shaken off the legend of Astaire had I seen Gavin Lee or originator Tom Chambers in the part). Clive Hayward was blustering Britishness in the Edward Everett Horton role of harried producer, and Stephen Boswell had a madcap time as Bates, his eccentric butler. Understudy Russell Leighton Dixon scored big laughs as the over-the-top comic relief, Alberto Beddini, who sings the ridiculous “Latins Know How” in the second act. Best of all was Vivien Parry as the producer’s wife and leading lady’s best pal. Her character doesn’t enter until the top of the second act, but once she opened her mouth I wished she had been onstage from the overture. Out of the entire cast, Ms. Parry had the best grasp on the era and the style required, and was utterly divine in a Bea Lillie meets Beth Leavel sort of way. It would be remiss of me to not point out the large ensemble, who executed the gorgeous dance numbers and specialties with class and elegance.

Director Matthew White did an excellent job staging the show, but should not have been involved in the script adaptation (which he did with Howard Jacques). Deamer’s Olivier-winning choreography is some of the most joyous I’ve seen in years, outside of the City Center Encores! series. Chris Walker’s period appropriate orchestrations and arrangements were sublime, and made the pit sound bigger than it was. While the costumes, hair and make-up were all top notch, the Art-Deco inspired set looked astonishingly cheap in comparison. Top Hat also won the Olivier Award for Best Musical. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will come to NY, but if the folks behind the show have Broadway in their sights, they should seriously consider hiring a librettist to do a major re-write. The joys of the music and dancing aside, the script for Top Hat makes Nice Work If You Can Get It seem groundbreaking.

‘The Audience’ – Gielgud Theatre


While planning my trip to London, I hoped I might be able to catch Dame Judi Dench and Dame Helen Mirren on stage, both of whom were appearing in the West End for limited seasons. I didn’t get to see Dench in John Logan’s Peter and Alice, but I was quite fortunate enough to catch Mirren’s performance in Peter Morgan’s The Audience, an episodic fantasia on the weekly meeting between Queen Elizabeth II and the Prime Minister. These meetings are informal and off the record, giving Morgan much in the way of creative freedom. There have been twelve PMs under the reign of Her Majesty; the play features eight.

The show has been doing extraordinary business, so I was unable to book a ticket prior to my departure, but I thought I’d give “day seats” (the London version of rush) a try. I woke up bright and early on Monday morning and made my way to the Gielgud Theatre around 8:30AM. When I arrived there were already several people in line. The box office opened at 10AM, at which point we were brought into the gorgeous lobby. The box office manager gave us instructions and told us the number of seats that were available, and that after those were sold, they would start selling standing room for the same price. Well, I missed out on getting a seat, but I was not about to pass up the opportunity to see Mirren in one of the hottest shows in London for the princely sum of £10.

The Audience is an affectionate personality piece designed to give Helen Mirren a tour-de-force star vehicle, which she delivers and how. The play itself is somewhat unexceptional; a series of vignettes connected by dialogues between elder Elizabeth and her younger self at various points in her childhood. Morgan’s writing is often sentimental and sometimes veers toward hagiography, but his dialogue is sharp and witty, and makes for great entertainment. Stephen Daldry’s sharp, insightful and intensely focused direction helps to keep the evening fluid and transitions seamless. Chronologically, the play spans the full 60 years of Elizabeth’s reign, but is presented in a non-linear fashion. Part of the fun comes from not knowing which era of Her Majesty’s reign we’re about to visit.

Mirren is utterly astonishing. The actress delivers a staggering performance with stunning mastery and wit. She embodies Her Majesty perfectly, modulating her performance to capture Elizabeth at the various points of her life. The transitions are extraordinary, with some of them happening right on stage in a matter of seconds. And this is not a retread of The Queen, in which Mirren played Her Majesty during the week after Princess Diana’s death in 1997. Through the vignettes, we get a full portrait of a life dedicated to service, and of a person with an unflappable sense of duty, conscience, and compassion. And dry wit. Credit is also due to Bob Crowley for his costumes and Ivana Primorac for her exceptional hair and make-up design.

To my amazement, The Audience has 20 (!) actors onstage, as well as 2 corgis. The eight members of the “Dirty Dozen” are played by some of England’s finest actors. Among these players, Edward Fox makes a strong impression as Churchill in an early scene, and Paul Ritter (Reg in the beloved revival of The Norman Conquests) is a delight as a hapless John Major. Haydn Gwynne offers an amusing, if broad, portrait of the recently deceased Thatcher, who stalks into Buckingham Palace and confronts Her Majesty in a most brusque manner. The scene with David Cameron (Rufus Wright) was the audience favorite, with Mirren bringing down the house by nodding off as the current PM droned on incessantly. However, the most extraordinary support is supplied by Richard McCabe as Harold Wilson, who is rumored to have been the Queen’s favorite of the twelve. McCabe is big, bold and fearless. He’s also warm and funny, but also exceptionally moving in the scene where he tells the Queen of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis and plans to step down.

Plans are underway for a Broadway transfer and audiences in New York (especially fans of Mirren) will lap up The Audience like cat nip. I didn’t know all the Prime Ministers or all of the political events and issues discussed, but that didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the piece. I do understand that some changes are going to be made for American audiences. Tony Blair is not present in the current West End incarnation because Morgan wanted avoid direct comparisons to The Queen, but he is likely to be added for the Broadway production (though I hope Morgan retains all the delightful jokes had at the former Prime Minister’s expense). Also, I understand that the portrayal of Thatcher will be toned down for NY, as Americans tend to have more affection for her than the British. Regardless of what might change, I’ll tell you this: I can’t wait.

‘Once’ – West End


When I traveled to England this year, I had made a firm decision that I wouldn’t see anything that I had already seen, or could possibly see, in New York. The first time I saw the stage adaptation of Once was on its opening night last March (incidentally just prior to my last trip to London). However, I was drawn to the London production solely on a press photo I saw of the show’s West End leads, Declan Bennett and Zrinka Cvitešić. I loved the film and its simple but moving Brief Encounter-meets-folk-rock romance, and had also liked the Broadway production very much, but there was something about seeing these two leads that led me to buy a ticket, thus breaking my own rule. I snagged a seat in the stalls from the show’s website for £19.50 only hours before the curtain.

Currently playing at the Phoenix Theatre in the West End, the London production of Once (which started in Dublin a few weeks back) replicates John Tiffany’s Tony-winning staging. I have to confess I found myself loving the show even more the second time around. I suppose it could be that a second encounter with the show might heighten the experience, but frankly I think the West End ensemble takes the show to another plane entirely. The show as a whole is warmer, more intimate and more visceral. Bennett is exceptionally well cast as Guy: sensitive, soulful and remarkably well-sung. Cvitešić makes an incredible impression as Girl. Seeing the production in NY, I felt that the character was just a quirky, idiosyncratic device. However, Cvitešić plays her like a real person. The personality is still offbeat, but there is also strength, empathy, and frustration; such dimension and depth which delightfully took me by surprise. Together, their chemistry is palpable, taking the stakes to a higher level and make the ending all the more moving as a result.

The entire ensemble was outstanding, but special kudos to Michael O’Connor as Da, whose pre-show “Raglan Road” brought the bustling Phoenix Theatre to pin-drop silence as well as Ryan Fletcher, bleach blonde and eccentric as Svec. Their musicianship is impeccable. I am not the biggest fan of the John Doyle school of actors-as-musicians, but it is so perfect for this show.

I was told by several friends to expect a different kind of audience experience in London; people are more reserved, more guarded and apt to be seemingly less enthused throughout. So imagine my response as the Brits around me sobbed openly during the last 15 minutes of the show, and through the three (!) curtain calls. Since I was flying solo, I made some “show friends” – those people with whom you share two or three hours and then never see again – the two older ladies to my right were long time friends, both Irish. One had flown in for a visit, and the one next to me is a London resident who had picked up last minute tickets. At intermission, realizing I was familiar with the show, one of them asked,

“So you’ve seen this already?”

“Yes, I saw it on Broadway on its opening night.”

“Oh, really? Is it doing well there?”

“Yes, it’s a huge success. And it won the Tony Award for Best Musical.”

“Did you hear that? He says this won a Tony.” (to me) “And to think, we’d never heard of this show before this afternoon!”

The London resident told me about how Once seemed to have slipped through the radar, since the British media has been focusing on The Book of Mormon. Interestingly the two Best Musical winners opened within days of each other, meaning they’ll likely duke it out at next year’s Olivier Awards. We then turned to the topic of ticket pricing. I told them how much less expensive and easier it had been for me to get a ticket for the London production than to the original playing on 45th Street. They were more than a little appalled that theatre in America is as expensive as it is. As the interval came to a close, they unloaded all the recommendations of plays I should see while I was in town. After the bows, the two ladies sat down, tears in their eyes. In our parting exchange, the one next to me grabbed my arm and said, “I need to see this again.”

I wish I could see the original London cast of Once a second and third time myself. (And I really hope there’s an original London cast album).

West End Revisited

I’ve been itching to get back to London ever since my 2012 visit came to an end. I took the opportunity to fly back when I learned that The Union Theatre was going to be presenting the first fully staged production of Darling of the Day in England. The flop musical, with a score by Styne and Harburg, was a fast flop in 1968 but won my fave Patricia Routledge a Tony. I’ve known and loved the score for many years, but have never had an opportunity to see it onstage. An added bonus was the casting of my friend Rebecca Caine as Lady Vale. I booked my flight, and my tickets to this show (its final performance), as well as the first preview of the West End transfer of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s Merrily We Roll Along.

This was all I had planned. I decided a couple weeks before I left to improvise most of the trip, including what theatre I saw. I decided to visit the TKTS booth in Leicester Square and try for day seats (the classy term used in the West End for rush) for either Peter and Alice or The Audience (or both). I wasn’t married to any particular show, idea or tourist attraction and just decided to see what would happen. Trips can be a lot more fun when you have this sort of freedom.

I took an evening flight out of JFK (aka the most cheery place on earth…), and managed to get no sleep on the flight. In a sign that proves I am turning into my father, I mostly avoided the in-flight entertainment and watched the flight tracker. However, I did watch an episode of Miranda during dinner (lesson learned: never watch something that will make you guffaw while you eat). With the exception of allowing myself an extra day, I followed a similar trajectory as I did on my last trip. I landed in Heathrow and made the claustrophobic trek from the airport to Canary Wharf on the underground. Thanks to my pal, Vera Chok, soon to be on stage at The Almeida in Chimerica, I was able to stay in the same house I did last year, with its tremendous location on the Thames overlooking the O2. I collapsed for a few hours in the mid-day, and then ventured out to the West End.

What surprised me most was how much of the layout I remembered. When I arrived the previous year, I had very little clue as to how to get around on the underground or where I had to go. This time, I barely even consulted a map. I soon found myself getting to know the West End: Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and Charing Cross Road became familiar sights during my week-long stay. That first day I knew that I would once again hate having to leave this wondrous city.

My original plan was to see nothing I had already seen in New York (or London, with Matilda running in both cities). Well, I scrapped that plan the very first night. Having arrived the morning of the explosion in West, Texas and while still reeling from the tragic events of the Boston Marathon, I decided at the TKTS booth in Leicester Square that I wanted something funny and silly to pass the time. So, I chose One Man, Two Guvnors. The show was my favorite of last season, which I saw three times with its original cast. While the NY production closed with James Corden’s departure, the West End run is now on its third cast.

While it wasn’t as bombastic a show without the original cast (my last experience seeing the show had been their wild, free-for-all closing performance), the play is still unbelievably hilarious. Rufus Hound is not nearly as indelible as Corden, but the staging is fool proof. Some of the improvisational bits included Dead Maggie Thatcher jokes, which went over big. Having seen the show so many times, and being familiar with the staging, I took the opportunity to observe the audience around me during some of the sure-fire bits, notably the uproarious food preparation. Also of note: Josh Sneesby was leading The Craze in the show’s skiffle music. Exceptional musicianship; and Grant Olding’s score is still quite remarkable. I find I listen to the show’s original London cast album more than anything else that opened on Broadway last year.

I made this a one-two punch as I decided on my second night to see the West End transfer of the Tony-winning musical Once. More on this next time.

Sunday Night Musings

My 2013 theatergoing started with my first trip to the Metropolitan Opera in about 4 1/2 years. Out of the blue, I got a message from Roxie asking me if I was interested in seeing Turandot and I thought for about a split second before saying yes. Puccini’s music is glorious – ask me some time to tell you about my experiences playing one of Cio-Cio San’s cousins in Madame Butterfly sometime – and this opera intrigued me. I only new the famed “Nessun Dorma,” a showstopper if there ever was one but I was curious since I knew it was Puccini’s final work, and that he died leaving it unfinished. I was captivated by this bizarre piece with its antiquated gender politics, bizarre Asian aesthetic and similarities to The Taming of the Shrew. Also, I was amused that they stopped to sing to the moon for what felt to be fifteen minutes. But, oh those melodies! And that glorious singing! Zeffirelli’s production is first-rate, and that set is to-die-for; however I had forgotten that Met Opera intermissions are longer than the norm. Here, the first intermission was 45 minutes, longer than the first act itself. It didn’t detract as it allowed Roxie and I the chance to catch up on other things, and to plan future visits to the opera, as I don’t intend on staying away another four and a half years.

Walking through Midtown recently, I noticed that the Music Box Theatre has replaced its traditional marquee with a digital one since the closing of One Man, Two Guvnors. It’s not the first one I’ve noticed; I don’t know when it happened but the classy New Amsterdam Theatre now houses one as well. Now, I understand that digital is the way of the future, but there’s an utter charmlessness in these LED screens. Instead of a billboard or sign that stands out, these two theatre marquees become just more billboards for tourists to ignore. And frankly, for being all state of the art, the quality is cheap. Let us hope this lunacy is just a trend.

I recently read Maurice Walsh’s short story “The Quiet Man,” which later became the basis for the eponymous film classic – and one of my all-time favorites starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. The 1952 Oscar-winner is receiving its long-overdue Blu-ray release this month (and by all accounts it looks exquisite) so I’ve been paying attention and felt it time to check out the brief, 20-something page story about short boxer Paddy Bawn Enright, his wife Ellen Roe Danaher and his feud with his brother-in-law Red Will Danaher. And as fate would have it, the Irish Repertory Theatre will be presenting the first NY revival of the musical adaptation of the film/short story, called Donnybrook! with a score by Johnny Burke and book by Robert McEnroe, starting in February.

The show ran only 68 performances in 1961, but featured lovely songs and performances from Art Lund, Joan Fagan, Susan Johnson and Eddie Foy, Jr. (Also in the cast was Philip Bosco as Will Danaher). The original cast album has never been officially released digitally (though some rogue labels offer an mp3 for sale on iTunes and Amazon), but I was fortunate to receive a cassette tape copied from the record album. (Side B was the musical version of How Green Was My Valley  – another Maureen O’Hara classic – called A Time for Singing). I later acquired the Kapp Records gatefold LP, which I continue to play every so often. The cast, headed by James Barbour and Jenny Powers looks to be top notch, so I look forward to checking that out soon.

In other flop musical news, both Dear World and Darling of the Day are getting their first UK productions in the next couple of months. The wondrous Betty Buckley will play the Madwoman of Chaillot, which is cause for much excitement, at the Charing Cross Theatre through February and March. The latter, however, interests me more on a personal level. I have long been a champion of Darling of the Day, unavailable for licensing since its 1968 premiere, ever since I first heard the original cast album (which is a must for any show music fan). The Styne-Harburg score is delightful, and Tony-winning star Patricia Routledge is the pinnacle of loveliness as the show’s leading lady. So I am hoping to fly out to see this one, which will star Kate Secombe as Alice Challice (the Routledge role) and Rebecca Caine as Lady Vale. No word on the gents just yet, but the show plays the Union Theatre from March 20 to April 20.

Emma Thompson: Musical Theatre Leading Lady

Maryann Plunkett won the 1987 Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance in Me and My Girl, but what many might not know is that the role of Sally in the Stephen Fry-Mike Ockrent revisal of the British classic was first played by Emma Thompson in the West End.

The show was a mammoth success in London, besting Les Miserables for most of the awards (most particularly Robert Lindsay’s sweep of Best Actor in a Musical) and running for 8 years.

From the Royal Variety Performance here’s Lindsay and Thompson performing the title song:


They are joined by the company for the rousing “Lambeth Walk”


“Sweeney Todd” – West End

Sweeney Todd 2012

There is a revival of Sweeney Todd currently playing London’s West End. If that news alone isn’t enough to get you on the first plane to England, let me explain further: there is a astounding revival of Stephen Sondheim & Hugh Wheeler’s epic Grand Guignol musical currently playing the Adelphi Theatre starring Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton.

Sweeney Todd is in my top three shows of all time; and I’m excited to see any production. And if I could, I would get on the next plane back to London to see this Jonathan Kent directed production again. Dark, unnerving and anchored by two strong central performances, this is a West End revival not to be missed, and a transfer to Broadway should be a no-brainer. The 1979 musical, considered by many (including yours truly), to be Sondheim’s masterpiece tells the story of a vengeful barber who transforms into a blood-thirsty killer, along with his enterprising accomplice and lover, Mrs. Lovett.

Ball is virtually unrecognizable as the deadly barber, both physically and vocally. In fact when he made his first appearance I wasn’t sure whether or not I was seeing an understudy. Admittedly, he wasn’t the draw for me to see the show and my expectations were low but I was more than surprised: Ball is astonishingly good. In the first scenes, we see the “bleeding nobody” brooding with rage, making his mental snap at the end of the first act quite chilling. His “Epiphany” was so intense that for the first time I wasn’t so sure if Mrs. Lovett was going to live to the end of the first act.

Peter Polycarpou plays the Beadle as a social climbing kiss-up rather than some bizarro creep. Peter Howe offers an unsettling portrait of warped piety and deviant sexuality as the Judge. James McConville is absolutely devastating as Toby. Gillian Kirkpatrick scores big as the Beggar Woman. Less effective are Lucy May Barker (think about the name) and Luke Brady as Johanna and Anthony, with lackluster renditions of “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” and “Johanna.”

However, for as good as Ball is in the title role, it is Imelda Staunton who makes this production a must-see. I knew we were in for something different when Staunton whipped out a dirty, empty glass bottle to use as a rolling pin in “The Worst Pies in London.” Her Lovett is unlike any other I’ve ever seen, more naturalistic and pragmatic. She didn’t play up the more comic aspects of the character, but still managed to be funny and find laughs in the most unexpected places. I know the show by heart, and Staunton kept surprising me right to the very end; a performance so indelible I can vividly replay it in my mind. Moments come to mind: her reaction to opening the trunk (which made a delighted audience applaud), the terror on her face during “Epiphany,” the chilling look on her face at the end of “Not While I’m Around,” and the master class of her final scene.

The dynamic between Staunton and Ball was extraordinary, with their scenes together the most memorable. Charged with sexual energy, their showstopping rendition of “A Little Priest” was less music hall romp than full out foreplay. This chemistry makes the finale all the more tragic. When the orchestra played the final chord, I sat there in awe for a good beat before bursting into euphoric applause.

Director Jonathan Kent has set this Sweeney in the 1930s. I’m not sure that the change in time period really adds anything to the piece, but it definitely doesn’t detract. The staging is much more traditional than John Doyle’s recent revival, but I knew as the opening “Ballad” was sung among the characters to each other as working class workplace gossip around London, that we were in for an stellar evening. His production is dark, stark and deliciously violent. Anthony Ward’s set is appropriate dark and eerie, and places the famed factory whistle right on stage. Ward’s costumes evoke the dirt and grime of a seedier side of Fleet Street, and serving the director’s vision quite well.

This production is billed as a strictly limited season, running six months through September 10th. It must be seen to be believed.

A cast album was recorded before performances start and was released in the theatre at or around opening night. Since it wasn’t available anyplace else, I made it a point before seeing the show to pick up a copy. It’s an impressive account of the production, specifically preserving many of Staunton’s finest moments – both spoken and sung. The recording sounds incredible, with some of the show’s sound effects audible (particular the furnace crackling in the final scene, and some truly hair-raising throat slittings). The major flaw is that for some reason the album is one disc. That’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t prevent the album from being a must-have.